A blazing beginning

 By Keith Taylor
For Points East

Klang II, the author’s boat, sits under a tarpaulin to the right of the marine lift as an explosion rocks the marina. Photo courtesy the “New Era”

It was a winter Saturday evening in January 1968 when the phone rang in the old colonial house-turned office on Old Main Street in Wethersfield, Conn. In my new role as editor of “Soundings,” I was working with my boss, Jack Turner, the publisher and founder of the New England boating monthly newspaper. There were just the two of us putting the finishing touches on the February issue due at the printers the following Monday.

The call brought grim news. Down the Connecticut River, the Essex Boat Works was on fire. The flames were threatening the historic old boatbuilding yard, established over 300 years ago. This was where the State of Connecticut’s first warship, the Oliver Cromwell, was built for the War of 1812.

My concerns were more immediate. Klang II, our old wooden English gaff-rigged yawl, was locked in heavy river ice at the Essex Boat Works, her bowsprit only a couple of feet from the bulkhead and not much farther from the paint shop. My wife Karen and I had purchased the old boat just three months earlier to live on. Karen was working on board as we continued to sort and stow our possessions and make our new home shipshape.

This was not an auspicious beginning. We had dared to dream of a new life, free from the demands and deadlines of corporate daily newspapers – that and cramped apartment living in crowded cities. We were leaving it all behind for the freedom of life afloat in a small town and the lure of cruising New England waters in the summer.

It was all Karen’s idea, bless her! Well, it was actually an idea implanted and nurtured by our English friend Barbara Davis. She and her Aussie husband Murray would go on to start “Cruising World” magazine in Newport, R.I., in 1974, then sell it to the New York Times Company 10 years later for $10 million.

Murray, a wily newspaperman from Melbourne, had wrangled an early assignment to cover the America’s Cup in Newport in 1967. He also took a leave of absence a year earlier to roam English South Coast boatyards, searching for a boat to make an Atlantic crossing, then use as a home for his family. There were Barbara, daughter Kate, son Paul, and the ship’s dog Bosun. Klang would also be the Newport base for his Cup reporting for the “Melbourne Age.”

My path to Newport was riskier, but more direct. While working in London I accepted a low-paid job in the Manhattan offices of Rupert Murdoch’s growing Australian newspaper group in the hope that my nascent interest in sailing would win me a reporting role in Newport.

That’s how we came to be competitors sniffing for scoops by day on the waters of Rhode Island Sound and, by night, social companions supping on lobsters from the pot Murray hung over the transom. There was Mount Gay rum from the generous stash tucked out of sight in the loose iron ballast and perpetually black oily waters in the bilge. In the candlelit, teak-paneled saloon aboard Klang, moored right off the Ida Lewis Yacht Club, Barbara’s tales of winter life aboard a previous boat on the River Seine in the heart of Paris were beguiling.

As our Summer of the Twelves drew to a close, and the Aussie challenger Dame Pattie’s fate was sealed, Jack offered me the editorship of “Soundings.” But what’s the editor of a boating book without a boat? Karen had the answer: “We should buy Klang. Barbara and Murray want to sell her.”

We scraped up a ridiculously small down-payment, and the Davis’s agreed to take back a mortgage that barely stretched into five figures. Jack decided his editor should live aboard at Essex Boat Works, a 30-mile commute from the office in Wethersfield. He set this up with the yard’s owner Stuart Ingersoll.

There only remained the question of a mortgage to secure Murray and Barbara’s interest in the vessel. Klang, throughout the 44 years following her construction in Falmouth, Cornwall, was a British-registered ship. She flew the Red Ensign, and, as British subjects, we could continue the tradition. All we needed was a lawyer, one conversant with British maritime law, to handle the paperwork. Our salvation came in the form of the prestigious Wall Street law firm of Hill, Betts, Freehill, Yamaoka and Longcope.

The four of us huddled with a partner and a secretary in one corner of a magnificent boardroom table almost as long as Klang and more suited to mega-tanker transfers and other weighty business. After signing a bill of sale and a British-registered ship mortgage, the Taylors were yacht owners.

Klang hit Essex, literally, just before dawn one frosty late October morning. We’d sailed all night up Long Island Sound from Oyster Bay, then waited interminably at the railroad bridge across the Connecticut River in Old Saybrook, before approaching the long arm of Steamboat Dock which, at that time, stretched well out into the river.

Murray was our skipper on this ship’s orientation voyage. There were empty berths pointing downriver. It looked simple, but we hadn’t reckoned on the flooding current grabbing the boat’s long keel and slewing us sideways. Within minutes, we were pinned across the bows and bowsprits of about four moored boats. We fended, battled and schemed, but we were going nowhere until the tide turned.

Later that morning, as we untangled ships and lines, we met Bill Warwick, skipper of the schooner Surprise, and his girlfriend and, later, wife, Pat. They became firm, lifelong friends, the first of many we made during our six years in Essex.

We remained out on Steamboat Dock as the days grew colder and the mooring field emptied. Stuart Ingersoll and his crew marshaled, moved and decommissioned 100 arriving boats before hauling, then shoehorned them into the tight-packed cluster of ancient old wooden sheds that comprised the Boat Works’ covered storage.

Just after Christmas it was our turn. We were allocated a choice berth in the water immediately to the west of the railway-based marine lift. Our bowsprit was almost touching the bulkhead under the narrow wooden walkway separating the paint shop from the river’s edge. We unstepped the boat’s mainmast and set it up on wooden trestles in the spar shed, left the mizzen in place, then used the main boom as a ridgepole for a heavy green waterproof canvas cover that enveloped the whole boat.

Saturday, Jan. 20, was a calm, relatively mild day after a spate of extremely cold weather that left boats in the water pinned in thick ice. In the sheds, individual boat owners worked on their own refit tasks, while yard hands tackled bigger jobs. Yellow and red electrical cables snaked everywhere on the hard mud floors, powering portable heaters and power tools. Aboard Klang, two carpenters finished installing our cute and highly effective little pot-belly coal stove, complete with a polished brass chimney that stretched up through the overhead. They finished up, said goodnight to Karen, and left, pulling the hatch closed and also flicking the hasp over to the closed position.

It was live-aboard yacht broker Ted Johnson who smelled smoke in the darkened yard around 6:15 p.m. Inside one shed, he saw a boat fully ablaze. He called in the fire from the phone aboard his 70-foot yacht Desiree, moored at his dock next to the lighthouse at the foot of Ferry Street. The sirens of the Essex Volunteer Fire Company wailed out over the town seconds later. Johnson urged his wife to grab her jewelry and their cat and run before he hastened to strip the winter covers from his yacht.

It was mere minutes before the first fire truck arrived on the scene, to be joined progressively by units from Deep River, Westbrook and Old Saybrook. Even then, the yard was doomed. The sheds were, in fire-speak, already “well-involved.” Boats then, and now, are stored with their diesel and gasoline tanks filled to brimming to prevent condensation and water that will damage engines. As boats heated up, their fuel tanks cooked off and exploded, sending gouts of flame over 100 feet in the air. The burning fuel, plus the dry timber of old wooden yachts – and the even drier structures over 100-years-old – resulted in a raging inferno. Over 100 volunteer firefighters labored most of the night to contain, quench the embers and stand guard on surrounding properties, but the fireworks show, so to speak, was over in a couple of hours.

Aboard Klang, Karen’s first intimations of danger were the muffled sounds of explosions. She couldn’t open the main hatch, but her limited view through the small portholes in the aft cabin showed rosy-colored ice reflecting the growing blaze. The only other escape was through the forward hatch. It was encased in a heavy vinyl cover that, in cold weather, was as stiff as a sheet of iron. Karen reported later that the cover was hot to the touch and peeled back easily, allowing her to scramble on deck and make a run for it.

She had to walk up our finger pier into the radiated heat and directly toward the paint shop. Then she could turn to her right and make her way along the narrow wooden walkway fronting the buildings. An hour later, only smoking charcoal remained where she had fled to safety

Out on the extreme edge of the Boat Works docks nearest the river, live-aboard owner John Furness had the engine running aboard his classic 53-foot Herreshoff schooner Madrigal. He was ramming her back and forward in a small ice pocket in a tame and futile imitation of an icebreaker. As the flames grew higher, the fire department’s seldom-used fire-fighting DUKW amphibious truck moved into position outboard of Madrigal. The “duck” broke through some trash ice and got within about 30 yards. Suddenly the old schooner and the boats along the water’s edge, including Klang, were doused with icy water.

Madrigal’s owner John Furness relaxed and killed the engine while staring mesmerized at the flames. He became aware that the icy deluge from the duck had stopped just as a wet hand reached over the rail and a weak voice said, “Help!” Over the shoulder of the sopping firefighter, the duck’s red emergency light was still rotating and flashing under water.

Newspapers later reported that the DUKW’s hull was punctured by hard contact with the ice. The insider story was the missing bung. The duck was parked outside, behind the fire department, and a stopper bung in the cockpit was always left uncovered to allow rainwater to drain. The duck had lumbered through town before the short voyage around the end of Steamboat Dock. In all the excitement of a rare live deployment no one fitted the bung before she splashed down the ramp at the foot of Main Street.

As the night wore on, all that remained was the vast glowing pile of embers. Fiberglass boats turned to ash. Engine blocks, and steel cradles were seemingly intact, and the heavily charred and fire-ravaged skeletal outlines of two or three big boats were a haunting reminder of the blaze. Nothing remained of the 40 or 50 aluminum masts in the spar shed. The lead in yacht keels simple melted and sank into the charcoal. Weeks later, that occasioned a midnight visit, complete with flashing blue-and-red lights from State Police officers intent on arresting an enthusiastic lead recycler. Amazingly, our solid Oregon pine mainmast kept its shape when its wooden trestles collapsed and it fell to the ground. Protected by the cool earth and its charred exterior, all its fittings and mast bands remained in place permitting precise measurements that became the source for a drawing of the new mast.

All seven or eight boats in the water were virtually unscathed. It was low tide, and the boats were sheltered from the fierce radiant heat because they were below the bulkhead. The rushing indraft of cold air also helped. That, and the steady barrage of water from the DUKW and firemen’s hoses. Still, attesting to the searing heat of the fire, the varnish on the top seven feet of Klang’s mizzenmast was blackened and blistered, as was the paint on the derrick kingpost aboard Stu Ingersoll’s old oyster dredger Flora. Daylight revealed burn holes and ash on our boat cover, while charred pieces of wood littered the ice.

Jack and I arrived in Essex around 8:30 p.m., guided by pungent smoke tinged orange by the remains of the blaze. Karen was standing at the entrance to the property with a bunch of locals, many of them newly made friends. We embraced, a long, silent hug, and then she started telling her story.

Stuart Ingersoll walked up. He’d just taken a massive hit to his seven-year dream project and witnessed the destruction of 96 customers’ boats. Stu was geniality personified: “Well, Karen,” he said, as we shook hands. “We completed installing your stove today. You should be warm and cozy this winter!”

New Zealander Keith Taylor was the Editor of “Soundings” and later “SAIL” magazine. This article is hopefully the first of several more to come regarding the Klang saga.